In phone interviews with 1,000 adults, Xavier University found that a clear majority of Americans feel that things are much worse off now than they were a generation ago, and that they will only continue to decline. The questions, presented in phone interviews in February, focused on many sides of the American Dream, from opportunity and wealth to financial security, freedom and family.
Of those asked, 68 percent said it would be more difficult for their children to achieve that dream than it was for them, and almost as many believe it is harder now than it was for their parents' generation. The country's long-term prospects are in bad shape too, according to the group. Fifty-eight percent thought the U.S. was in the midst of a steady decline as a world power.
Still, the survey's organizers were careful to point out that "not all the news is bad: individuals are optimistic about their particular prospects," suggesting that Americans' self-confidence and self-reliance remain fairly strong.
"The American Dream is in trouble, but it is being kept alive by new immigrants, Latinos and African-Americans. The hope for the most rests with those with the least," said Mike Ford, founder of Xavier's Institute for Politics and the American Dream, in a press release.
Indeed, survey takers discovered that the most pessimistic of all demographic groups was white, middle-aged women located in the Midwest. By contrast, they found:
But in the American press, the reaction to the news was almost uniformly grim, especially in regards to the national political scene.African-Americans, Latinos and first- or second-generation immigrants view the Dream more positively on nearly every measure ... than do white Americans. Or in other words, the part of our society that is still, by and large, worse off in terms of social or economic measurements is also the same group that is most positive about the American Dream.
"What does this mean for politics?" asked political writer Chris Good at The Atlantic. "Think of it as a much more detailed version of Right Direction/Wrong Track polling, and a possible explanation for the strong anti-incumbent, anti-Washington sentiments shown in generic election polling -- a facet, or a motivating factor, in voter dissatisfaction."
"The findings are a reminder of the political climate facing politicians this year," concurred Dan Balz at The Washington Post.
As far as the country's economic prospects were concerned, journalists didn't have much better news to report.
The San Diego Union-Tribune recently carried out its own informal survey on consumer confidence, finding that it had "slid between January and February." The paper also pointed out that yet another survey, this one conducted by the National Federation of Independent Businesses, indicated that confidence among small businesses fell by 1.3 percent last month.
ABC News, meanwhile, had a bleak report on the economic outlook for middle-income Americans. "Being 'middle class' in America isn't just about income," observed a recent online article. "It's about the confidence that you can afford a home, a successful education for your kids, a vacation and the other trappings of the American dream. For many middle-class Americans hit by what many are calling the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, that dream is slipping away."
An earlier poll of young adults aged 18 to 29 taken by the Harvard Institute of Politics found that 45 percent rated their personal situation bad or very bad. Still, 46 percent thought they would be better off than their parents in the long run.
Or, as Mike Ford put it in an article published at The Huffington Post, "The American people want to believe that we still possess the daring-do leadership and burning inventiveness to do it again -- but they doubt it right now. Who could blame them when we look around at political warriors engaged in Pyrrhic warfare and timid corporate leaders concerned for the next quarter, not the next decade."